Dust, Damp and Doters Damaging King Tut’s Tomb, Say Getty Institute

The tomb of Tutankhamun is one of the world’s most famous ancient spots. Yet spots are precisely what are causing the decay of its beautiful wall paintings. The US-based Getty Conservation Institute have been drafted in to help mend the murals, but have been finding it an uphill struggle in the face of fierce desert weather and the onslaught of eager tourists.

Dr Zahi Hawass, Egypt’s antiquities chief, has long bemoaned the damage tourists are doing to tombs at the Valley of theKings; the necropolis of ancient Thebes near modern Luxor. Dr Hawass has even mooted the idea of a replica Tut’s tomb to cater for a burgeoning demand for the boy-king. Whether tourists will be satisfied without a trip to the real thing is debatable to say the least (have you say here).

And our composite picture (below), combining an original snap from Harry Burton and a recent shot by Sandro Vannini, clearly shows the brown spots have been in the tomb since Carter and Carnarvon first burst in over 80 years ago. So how much of its deterioration is due to tourism? Getty spokesperson Melissa Abraham tells us: “(The brown spots) have indeed been there since the tomb was discovered, and have never properly been analyzed, so that will be part of the GCI’s task. The visitor impact on the site is a separate issue that also will be looked at.”

Team director Jeanne Marie Teutonico is equally perplexed by the enigmatic spots. “They’ve been there since Carter excavated, but some people think they’re growing,” she says. “And no one knows what they really are. Could they be fungus? Bacteria? Are they still alive? Can they cause harm? We need to find out.”

Right now the Getty project is in its planning stage. Yet team member Shin Maekawa agrees with Dr Hawass that humidity from the swell of visitors could be having a fatal effect on the tomb’s wonderful paintings. “The amount of visitors affects humidity inside,” she says. “It’s a small space, maybe 100 metres square, and each person in it will emit roughly 100ml of water vapour in an hour and produce the same amount of heat as a 100-watt bulb. We’ve been monitoring humidity levels inside, and they can range from 20 to 70 per cent. In the past it got up to 90. At higher levels, we get seriously worried about fungi activity.”

“There is an incredible presence, this incredible feeling of time passing. It’s an evocative place.”

But the damp is far from the only danger facing Tut’s tomb. “There’s also a problem with dust,” adds Maekawa, “you can’t vacuum the tomb because it would damage it, so it has never been properly cleaned. But dust comes in through visitors’ skin, hair and lint, so we need to work out what to do about it all.” The less-than-ideal conditions have meant surveying the tomb with X-ray machines has been a laborious and long-winded affair. “Some of the technical imaging we recently did had to happen in the dark,” says Ms Teutonico. “We had to get special permission to stay after the tomb was closed. It’s completely black, completely silent, and very hot.”

An uphill struggle indeed. But the team is also briefed with making the tomb a better experience for its many admirers. Six million people a year visit the Valley of the Kings; the vast majority of whom crowd several rows deep to get a glimpse of King Tut’s final resting place. Yet most leave underwhelmed: nearly all of Tut’s treasures are now in the Cairo Museum (and KingTut Virtual), except for his mummy and just one of his four coffins. Brand-name aside, there’s little to entertain or educate the visitor on their trip to the tomb.

Waiting to enter Tutankhamun's tomb.

2011 will see the Getty’s focus shifting to cater these issues. “We could certainly improve on the visitor’s experience,” adds Ms Teutonico. “It’s not great. We’ll look at the lighting, installing railings on the stairs, and work on helping the presentation of the whole area. It also needs some kind of ventilations scheme: it’s hot, and the air exchange is not very good.” The Valley is fast being left behind in the world of cultural tourist draws, with the likes of Athens’ New Acropolis Museum and Oxford’s Ashmolean offering truly 21st century experiences of the ancient world.

The SCA has only recently pulled through a PR scare, when Dr Hawass offered stern words to Egyptian officials preventing tourists from taking external photographs of the country’s heritage sites. 2010 could be make-or-break for Egypt, with fights over the Rosetta Stone and Bust of Nefertiti reaching diplomatic levels, and the search for Cleopatra’s tomb at Taposiris Magna reaching boiling point. Yet saving the tomb of King Tut, the biggest discovery in archaeological history, could just be at the top of Dr Hawass’ list. MsTeutonico certainly sees the tomb’s allure: “there is an incredible presence, this incredible feeling of time passing. It’s an evocative place.”

Would you be happy visiting a replica King Tut tomb? Do you feel tourism in general is having an adverse affect on our world heritage? Who’s problem is it anyway? Get involved and have your say at Heritage Key by visiting our discussion page here.